Rome, open city

Ester Grinspum (Journal of Reviews)


Commentary on Roberto Rossellini's film.

In the evolution of cinema, there have been certain moments when the spell of that blind barrel organ always playing the same music is broken. Moments in which an exceptional work baffles and disappoints organ-organ lovers, while at the same time enthusing and comforting all those who deplore the rarity of these moments, and that the normal course of cinema depends so little on the demands of art and so much on the impositions of industry and commerce, not to mention others.

As a result of such impositions, it is not the art of the film that we are called upon to judge, going to the cinema, but the commercial competence of the producers, their ability to make what audiences consume daily in massive doses, passively following the comic strips made voluntarily and involuntarily to reduce them to the convenient cataleptic state.

But there are exceptional moments, I said. They are those in which a certain set of circumstances makes the interests at stake coincide with the artistic vocation and ambitions of those who seek to make cinema an art and not a blind organ. And then, as if by magic, where only stupefying falsifications were produced, works of art begin to appear, in which emptiness gives way to a meaningful expression, which meets what the part of the public that has not allowed itself to be stupefied continues to expect from the cinema: truth, poetry and life.

Ninety-nine percent of film production is conventional; that is: almost all films have nothing to do with art, which is essentially and always, whatever the art, whatever the genre, anti-conventional. That is, of course, understanding by conventional that work in which the public's entertainment is only sought, its distraction, diverting it from taking seriously its own life.

Nor should it be supposed, then, that that genre of films in which, for example, the cursed troubadours, or the Orpheus, by Cocteau, one enters the domain of the “fantastic”, since the fantastic is not conventional – and so much so, that all the French understood with certainty that the Devil of the damn lockers It was the German occupation. But it is conventional any of those countless films that, presenting themselves as images of reality, present us with characters that are simple mannequins, and plots in which only what suits the pleasant outcome required by conveniences... in the various senses of this word.

There are many ways to be unconventional. But for any one of them, the initial requirement, without which no film will be a work of art, is that the motif and its cinematographic expression awaken the authentic man in the spectator, interest in each one of us the capacity to think and feel, and not just the epidermis. Whether the film is realistic or fantastic, we immediately feel the presence of the artist between us and the images. The intensity, the depth with which we “relive” what is happening before our eyes clearly tells us whether it is a work of art or a forgery.

Italy was the theater, after liberation, of an event of exceptional significance in the development of cinema. Fresh out of an era of mandatory official forgery, its compressed sap exploded in a series of first-rate works, which were like a whiplash in the impoverishment of European and American cinema. Its influence did not, however, bear all the fruits it seemed to promise – even in Italy itself; the admirable instrument that seemed to have forged some films of the first order, blunted by the force of circumstances, because it lacked the atmosphere of freedom in which, momentarily, his first experiences were located.

The great secret of this extraordinary renovation lies essentially in the experience that the Italians had just lived. After her, it wasn't possible to be conventional. How could an artist forget a day by day of darkness and anguish, of terror, of torture, tyranny and hunger? How could this experience be put aside, to make films in which, as if nothing had happened, there were only millionaires, swimming pools, beautiful bodies, ease and carelessness?

This is how Italian cinema discovered the vile and the heroic, the petty and the grandiose reality. Thus, Italian cinema despised ironed images, and preferred the crude photograph of miserable reality. Thus Italian cinema discovered, looking face to face, the tremendous truth of faces without beauty, of lives without time for artifice, of souls laid bare before a reality that did not admit hesitation between heroism and cowardice.

Rome, open city for me it will remain indissolubly linked to the extraordinary emotion I felt – how many millions of men have felt it? – when seeing for the first time six years ago this tragic story told by Rossellini without fear of the horrible nudity and the infinite bitterness of the truth. [At that moment, it seemed that we were burying a world that was definitely erased from the face of the earth. It seemed to us that that blood had really borne fruit in deliverance.] Those heroes had not died in vain; in the farewell of their little friends to the executed priest, we already saw the lives in formation that would never forget what they had learned. And at the junction of all the real forces, represented in the film's heroes, we guessed the union on which a future would be founded that fear could never cover with its dark mantle.

Looking back six years later Rome, open city, the anguish with which one watched the unfolding of its tragic scenes did not have the compensation I felt the first time. Its truth seemed present to me, not past. [That darkness is our darkness.] And the film gains an unexpected resonance, due to the contrast of emotions and memories it establishes.

Rome, open city it is not meant to be a synthesis of Italian resistance to the Germans; it is not a film with symbolic pretensions – what is symbolic about it is precisely the evidence with which a fragmented reality, exemplary, yes, but which is only the smallest part of a cataclysm, precipitates upon us. The way in which this film imposes itself on us comes precisely from being so simply authentic.

We might have preferred, as I do, that the Gestapo's “fatal woman” had been dismissed; but even there, reality far exceeded cinema, and our reaction will only be a defense against what is atrocious in this figure – because moral cruelty impresses us more than physical suffering. [Not even the speech of the German officer who drinks to stun himself and forget the shame he has of his “master race”, and everything he says to the other officers, nor is that false, because others have done it – others ended up finding out who were after all the most slaves of slaves.]

Let us imagine how American cinema would have “cooked” a script of this kind, and we will understand what the difference is between authentic art and its adulterations. We will understand that for many people, art is precisely what Hollywood would have made it Rome, open city, while Rossellini's film will be considered by them to be in “bad taste”. For these people art is a varnish to make things pleasing to the eye. Now, art is exactly what Rossellini's masterpiece offers us: such an intensity, of deeply significant moments, that the spectator feels echoing within himself each scene that takes place on the canvas.

Varnish shows nothing: it hides. And art is not made by hiding, but by revealing, making it visible, making it “evident”. Some might classify Rome, open city, even to deny that it is art, as a documentary film. Well, the documental is a mirror, so to speak, that indifferently collects everything. On the contrary, where there is choice, where there is composition, where there is architecture, we are no longer in the documentary domain. Art recomposes reality, because it only needs the moments in which it is concentrated. Thus the truth resurfaces, in art, not as it is on the surface of everyday life, but as it is within everyday life.

When the great category of expression of art is brought together, and a theme of tremendous humanity such as that of Rome, open city, all the words with which we praise him seem weak and unworthy. Those who don't know how to learn the lesson that this film gives us, at least know how to feel it as a work of art – and perhaps they will end up understanding how one and the other are after all inseparable, going to the bottom of the deeply bitter truth that it contains.

*Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972), Portuguese poet, critic and essayist, is the author, among other books, of The essential word – studies on poetry (National Publishing Company).

Comment made at the session of May 27, 1952, at Cine Tívoli, organized by the Jardim Universitário de Belas Artes, collected by Rui Moreira Leite in the volume Monteiro Couples – an anthology (Unesp, 2012).

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